Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Daniel Johns, Hayley Squires
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“You’re getting further and further from my heart,” opines Daniel Blake (Johns) at the start of Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winner. While he’s talking about the faulty organ that’s laid him off-work, it also refers to the callous behaviour of a system that deems Daniel fit to work, despite his recent heart attack.
It’s easy to take Loach for granted, a national treasure of the left, a maker of aesthetically humble social-realist dramas, a director who will never go out of fashion because he’s never really been in fashion. Some film snobs were dismayed that I, Daniel Blake took the top prize at Cannes when more overtly adventurous films were on offer. Others on the right were outraged when his BAFTA win for Outstanding British Film gave Loach a platform to lambast the Government.
But Loach’s film, for all its apparent entrenchment in familiar territory, digs deep into a wellspring of tightly focussed rage. In its own way, it’s as adventurous as movies get, given how apolitical most directors are – and certainly nothing speaks more to the tenor of modern society. It’s flawed as drama, maybe, but these aren’t nuanced times and Loach’s directness suits the subject; the story’s righteous blast of protest sweeps all before it.
The film is most effective in its details, the false civility and meaningless buzzwords of a bureaucracy designed by Kafka, the way that the recording of an action is more important than the emotional meaning it conveys. In a funny way, that’s almost a metaphor for Loach’s relationship with the rest of cinema, less interested in cute narrative structures or artful compositions than the actual substance of the story. It’s especially interesting to note that much of Daniel’s travails are caused by his lack of knowledge of computers – and this is an analogue film in a digital age, able to find kindness and cruelty in the simplest of shots.
The only awkwardness is that the specifics of Daniel’s case can feel false, a contrived perfect storm to illustrate the research that Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have uncovered. Of course, there must be people like Daniel in real life, but, in the context of the medium, the character’s computer-illiteracy smacks of the director’s own asceticism, the preference for working-class direct contact over focus-grouped, metropolitan elites. That’s doubly true of Katie (Squires), the friend he meets, who is almost a checklist of benefits system victims: driven out of London, sanctioned for being a few minutes late signing-on, consigned to a food bank, and worse.
But it hangs together because Loach is, above all else, a formidable director of actors. Johns and Squires’ chemistry is a delight; the latter has an unforced naturalism that captures the cadence of everyday speech, while Johns hits the sweet spot between Everyman affability and the mythic grandeur suggested by his name, with its echo of great poets and thinkers. When Blake takes his stand, in a brilliantly petty but persuasive act of rebellion on the street outside the job centre, it’s a moment to cherish and that rare thing in a Loach film: a blockbuster set-piece.